Screenwriter Tony Kushner explains the biggest change he made to ‘West Side Story’

When Steven Spielberg first pitched the idea of doing a new adaptation of “West Side Story” to Tony Kushner over breakfast eight years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer was slightly apprehensive about the prospect. As Kushner recalled in an interview with the New York Times last year, he left their meeting and told his husband, the writer Mark Harris, “You’re not going to believe this. He’s lost his mind.”

“It’s sort of funny because I hadn’t realized, I think, until the film came out and I started looking at some of the responses that I wasn’t the only one who thought that,” Kushner tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. But as Kushner quickly found out and audiences began to realize when “West Side Story” started screening in early December, the source text for the iconic musical is so robust and malleable, it was more than able to withstand modern touches and nuances that the filmmaking team sought to impart on their production. 

“We weren’t torturing the original material, the source material, into some kind of new bizarre shape,” Kushner says. “It really seemed to be welcoming in a weird way. It said, ‘Okay, this is a good [thing].’ It turned out that it could absorb a lot of new thinking and still stay ‘West Side Story. And it’s fun.”

Released on December 10, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” – the first-ever musical for the 75-year-old legend – generated some of the most enthusiastic reviews of 2021. “It’s a dazzling display of filmmaking craft that also feels raw, unsettled, and alive,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote in his review. “Rather than embalming a classic with homage or aggressively reinventing it, Spielberg [and his production team] have rediscovered its breathing, thrilling essence.”

For Kushner, that often meant going back to the original stage musical and its inspiration, William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” rather than the 1961 original film – which won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno, an executive producer of the Spielberg version who also plays a new character, Valentina. Kushner, for instance, sought to reorder the songs to better match the original stage musical rather than the film adaptation. He also gave the iconic ballad “Somewhere” to Moreno’s Valentina, who is now the owner of Doc’s corner store, rather than Tony and Maria (played in the new film by Ansel Elgort and breakout newcomer Rachel Zegler).

“In the original, Tony and Maria go to sleep with each other and there’s a dream ballet. In the dream ballet, a fantasy soprano, originally Reri Grist from the Met, comes out and sings ‘Somewhere,’” Kushner explains. “And then Maria does it as a reprise when Tony’s dying. And so I thought, we’re not going to do the dream ballet, and [while] I’m sure Rachel and Ansel would’ve done a fantastic job with it, it felt like I could maybe play around with that since it wasn’t originally them. And as soon as Steven had agreed to the Valentina rewrite of Doc, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be?’ I mean, he got Rita Moreno in this movie. Of course, she’ll be great in all the dramatic scenes, but she should sing something.”

Spielberg loved the idea – and the change became a fixture in the script. But deep into filming, Kushner says, Stephen Sondheim pointed out a problem. As the lyricist, who died late last year, noted, if Valentina sings “Somewhere,” then how could Maria possibly know its famous lyrics at the end of the film, when she’s supposed to repeat them back to Tony as he lay dying?

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, Stephen. It’s just in the air.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible answer,’” Kushner recalls with a smile. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll have to figure something out.’” 

Of course, Kushner, a two-time Oscar nominee, did come up with a fix by simply focusing on the characters. “I thought that ‘Somewhere’ is what she sings to him when he’s dying. ‘There’s a place for us, somewhere, a place for us.’ He’s about to go. She’s a Catholic, but there’s not a lot of evidence that she’s deeply religious or that he is,” he explains. “I felt like promising that we’ll meet together in the afterlife in heaven feels a little sort of Victorian and not quite plausible. And I thought, is there something else that she has sung that she could?”

“And then I thought, ‘Oh, only you. You’re the only one for me forever.’ [From ‘Tonight,’ which the star-crossed lovers do sing together.] What she can say to him is, ‘I’m never going to forget you. I will never get over this. You’re going to be inside of me forever,’” Kushner adds. “I thought that was good. I went to Sondheim and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘I wish I had thought of that.’ Made me very, very happy.”

“West Side Story” is out in theaters now.

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